HELPING HANDS - Winter 2006

Then-second-year medical students Funmi Okuyemi (left) and Amanda Raya, as part of a group of 11 medical students, helped set up a medical clinic in Bluefields, Nicaragua. Two of the children were seen as patients at the clinic.

Public Health Focus of Spring Break Trips

Spring break is traditionally a time for students to head out to the beach or to the slopes, but for several University medical students, spring break offered an opportunity to give back to underserved populations. Leaving their books and rounds behind, approximately 30 medical students traveled to northern Arizona and to Nicaragua. Because everyone does not have access to viable health care, in this country or abroad, these medical students focused on public health needs—to do what they could to educate and alleviate some suffering, even if only for a week.

In northeastern Arizona, 18 first-year medical students spent their 2006 spring break on the Navajo Nation in the Teec Nos Pos region. During the week, they taught elementary, middle, and high school students about nutrition and exercise and assisted in clearing a ball field so the children could have a place to play. Their hope was that such education might ward off the growing problems of childhood obesity and Type II diabetes, which are major health issues for American Indians.

Then-first-year medical students spent spring break on the Navajo Nation in the Teec Nos Pos region in Arizona.

"The trip was very eye-opening: to see how different health care and life are in an area of our own country that is so close, relatively speaking," says Michelle Sabo, now a second-year medical student. "I learned a lot about public health and about a whole different culture within our country's boundaries."

In the Teec Nos Pos region—which means "Trees in a Circle" in Navajo and takes its name from the cottonwoods that grow around the water at this remote location in the four-corners region—Sabo said that working with the children was easy and that they were very receptive. "One of the greatest challenges to seeing lasting change is not so much the kids and their education, but the availability of food and the education of the parents," she says. "Change depends on how receptive the families and the different generations are, so that whatever is taught in the schools can be propagated at home."

Medical assistance in Central America

Eleven second-year students went to Nicaragua, under the supervision of physicians with International Service Learning. Taking 11 duffel bags of medical supplies and medications, the students provided health care to many who do not otherwise have access to it.

Shada Rouhani, then a second-year student, helped coordinate the trip. She said it was a good learning experience and strengthened her resolve to include international health in her future career plans.

Middle-school Navajo children learn ATV safety and how to care for an injured rider on a backboard.

"We saw a number of medical conditions that we don't see in the United States," she says. "We saw people in unfortunate situations handling problems that you'd hope they wouldn't have to deal with."

In the morning the students arrived to work in the clinic in Pearl Lagoon, 200 patients were waiting to be seen, Rouhani says. The group was only able to see about half of the patients, many of whom had infectious diseases, pneumonia, complications of diabetes and high blood pressure, and infections, among other issues.

"It was frustrating because if they lived in the United States, these things could be treated easily," she says. "For these patients, there is no treatment available locally, and even if there were, they couldn't afford it."

The medical students also went house-to-house in Pearl Lagoon and Bluefields, on the Atlantic coast of the Central American country, talking with residents and determining their health-care needs. For those who needed diagnosis and treatment, the students gave them appointments to go to a clinic the next day. Patients could also come without an appointment.

One patient was severely anemic and needed to be transported to another town where there was a hospital for a blood transfusion. However, the group learned that in Nicaragua, patients must bring blood with them for a transfusion or buy it from the hospital, which many cannot afford.

"The learning curve in four days was unbelievable," says Shada Rouhani, now a third-year medical student. "We learned things about diagnosis, treatment, health, and socioeconomic conditions that we could never learn in the classroom."

"The learning curve in four days was unbelievable," Rouhani says. "We learned things about diagnosis, treatment, health, and socioeconomic conditions that we could never learn in the classroom."

Sabo concurs: "When you go for a week like that, you do help, but it's just as much a learning experience for the people who go, and that's truly, I think, a lot of what sticks with me."

Both trips were sponsored by the Forum for International Health and Tropical Medicine (FIHTM), which is a student-initiated organization poised to educate the medical community about international health concerns.

Terri Nappier, editor, and Beth Miller, senior medical news writer, contributed to the article.